In an age where we’re increasingly disconnected from our surroundings, the mindfulness movement has helped us to slow down. But after months of navel-gazing, Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi has had enough.
If you’re into fitness and wellbeing, the chances are that you’re mindful. You probably track your sleep quality, downing all screens 90 minutes before bed to read, meditate and rub lavender body cream over your hands. No doubt you try to eat intuitively, carefully selecting foods that make you feel good and taking your time to chew them.
For you, every walk is an opportunity to breathe in nature, each run a moment of space and all gym sessions done with the utmost care and attention. Hell, you’re even mindful down the pub when you take a break from sober curiosity to have a glass of wine that you’ve purposely chosen to drink.
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Mindfulness, for many of us, started as a way to claw back control over our mental and physical wellbeing. After years of HIIT classes, body transformation programmes and keto substitutes, a slower and more intentional school of thought was an attractive proposition. I don’t know about you, but when I first came across mindfulness, I was tired. I’d done the whole clean eating thing, had run myself ragged with daily gym sessions and was finding it hard to sleep.
And mindfulness provided a number of useful tools. It’s an undeniable fact that cutting screen time, eating dinner earlier and engaging in more yin-based activities close to bedtime can promote deeper sleep. We know that taking out time to eat without distractions or time constraints can increase how satisfied we feel afterwards and reduce things like acid reflux and bloating. Studies have found that our brains age slower if we meditate, focus and short-term memory improves, and mindfulness is supposed to make us feel more engaged at work. Despite those benefits, however, I took mindfulness too far.
Take intuitive eating, for example. I’ve tried it – taking my time to choose and eat what I like. I felt good slowing down, chewing more and savouring every mouthful… but who has the mental capacity to think about every single thing they eat or drink? It’s the same with mindful movement. Beyond yoga, which is all about connecting the breath to how the body moves, I’ve not got the energy to overthink why I’m working out or analyse how I’m feeling during a gym class – most of the time, I’ve got to force myself to get up, put my head down and get on with it. Loads of us work out because we know it’s good for us and that we’ll feel amazing afterwards; there’s no need to overthink that.
The fact that mindfulness is such a big theme on Instagram should tell us that it’s not the mental health beacon we’ve been led to believe. Social media is designed to treat our brains to random hits of dopamine with every scroll; it’s the antithesis of mindfulness in that addiction has been built in its development (watch The Instagram Effect on BBC if you don’t believe me!). If we really wanted to live more in the moment and reap the full benefits of nature, movement, nutrition, sleep and human connection, we’d actively try to curb the hours spent on our phones and simply crack on with life. Mindfulness, in my experience, has just become another thing to ‘get good at’.
I’ve tried meditating and breathing through everyday anxieties, but the only thing that has genuinely helped reduce the severity of stress attacks is walking or running in nature, listening to incredibly loud music or Radio 4 podcasts. There’s nothing mindful about it: my coping mechanism is to block out the thoughts and exhaust the body. It works wonders – far better than previous attempts to follow meditations on various apps.
And there’s a growing body of research to suggest I’m far from being alone in not finding meditation in particular to be the stress panacea people claim. A 2019 paper published in Plos One found that a quarter of regular meditators experienced adverse effects, including panic attacks and depression. Another study found that people who went on an eight-week mindfulness course and who meditated for over 30 minutes a day tended to have worse sleep quality than those who spent less time being mindful. Of course, meditation and mindfulness aren’t the same thing – you may meditate to be more mindful in your every day life – but those studies show where all that internal focus can lead us.
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And then there’s the fact that in an age where loneliness among young people is spiralling out of control, obsessively thinking about ourselves probably isn’t a good thing. Being more aware of how we behave probably isn’t going to undo feelings of inadequacy, isolation or pressure – if anything, I’d say having to be mindful about everything only heightens those negative emotions.
There definitely is a time and place for meditation, yoga and quietness. A weekly downing of tools to focus on your breath and mental space can be refreshing – particularly if it’s at a local studio with other people and away from technology. But in my own pursuit of balance and happiness, I’ve found that most of the time, mindlessness is just as, if not more, beneficial.
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